Never Never Land
The Skier’s Chalet in Aspen represents the last of a bygone era
“So come with me, where dreams are born, and time is never planned. Just think of happy things, and your heart will fly on wings, forever, in Never Never Land.”
Editor’s note: This story originally published in the November 2014 issue of POWDER (43.3). This spring, the Aspen Times reported that the FIS is demanding that Aspen replace Lift 1A and that the historic Skier’s Chalet sold for $22 million. Read the news story here.
THE SUN IS ALREADY WARM by the time Pat Sewell steps out of his room onto the balcony of the Skier's Chalet, on Aspen's Gilbert Street. Surveying the new day, he washes away the night with rapid blinking and a large cup of coffee. He worked the late shift last night at The Red Onion saloon—a holdover from the silver mining days right in the middle of town—and didn't get home till 3 a.m. It's a decent job—slinging drinks to locals, wealthy tourists, and lots of girls. He complains that the bouncer just gets drunk and hits on chicks, but what can you do. He's also a little disappointed that he couldn't join his friends Chris Tatsuno and Casey Vandenbroek on a midnight cat-ski session on the hill. They were at the Onion drinking when they got word that a cat driver was looking for company on his night shift. After downing a few more, they hitched a ride up the mountain under the glow of the moon with their gear in the flatbed. But, yeah, what can you do.
Sewell, a 31-year-old Aspen native, drains his coffee, throws on his ski clothes, buckles his boots, and walks 133 steps from the back door of the chalet, his home for the last five years, to the base of Lift 1A. Hinting at Aspen's former self, this antiquated double replaced Aspen's very first chair in 1971—an even slower single chair erected in 1946 that carried skiers up 2,550 vertical feet. A few remaining terminals and chairs from the old single still sit outside.
The Skier's Chalet is another portal to the past. A Canadian named Howard Awrey built the chalet in classic Swiss style in 1965. (The first chalet he built in 1953 was right next to Lift 1.) As the first ski-specific hotel in Aspen, its mountain access and warm south-facing balconies made it the original slopeside hot spot. Cary Grant and other celebrities sunned themselves on the back deck between ski runs. When Aspen hosted the World Cup, turning the base area into the finish line, the downstairs lounge became the pressroom. It was also the Kennedys' favorite hideaway in Aspen. John and Bobby, as young men, used to jump off the roof into the pool.
That same pool hasn't seen water in years. Today, the lifeguard is a plastic penguin named Petey whose mouth turns into a beer bong during parties. Of the 11 rooms, only seven are decent enough to rent. Jenny Ryden Harris, a second-generation local skier, who frequently hangs out at the chalet, says the men living there tend to come down with Peter Pan Syndrome—that is, boys who want to stay young forever.
Awrey intended the chalet to be a place where such men—and women, if they wanted—could congregate and unwind at the end of the day. It remained that way his entire life. He died in March at the age of 94. Now that he is gone, the chalet will likely suffer the same fate as other forgotten buildings that were torn down to make way for bigger, more lucrative lodging.
After Awrey sold the hotel for $3 million in 2006, the new owners pursued a redevelopment of the entire Lift 1A area, including million-dollar homes, timeshares, a restaurant, underground parking, employee housing, and a ski museum. Without a firm timetable though, they rented out the chalet's studio-like rooms for a steal. And a new era of Aspen ski bumming was born.
Sewell pays $300 a month in rent. He has no kitchen, hot water is unpredictable, and the pipes rumble and shake when someone takes a shower. The walls are so thin that when friends drop in for a few days, he hands out earplugs. Downstairs, there is a lounge with a huge L-couch that cradles visiting ski bums almost every night of the winter. There's also pool and pingpong tables, a signed poster from C.R. Johnson, skinny skis on the wall, a couple lockers to store ski gear, and plenty of space for the best damn party you've been to in a while. It adds up to a good deal for the tenants, especially considering the condos next door sit in the $8-million range. Sewell and his housemates recognize that they are living in what is likely the very last historic ski bum lifestyle in a town that practically invented it. With the chalet as their base camp, this band of skiers is reminiscent of the old-school Aspen mentality: ski first, party second, forget the rest.
At the chair, Sewell clicks in to his skis, greets the lifties, and rides to Ruthie's, a high-speed quad that continues up to 10,680 feet. Fresh cold air helps flush the brain of any remaining late-night toxins, and the greater Aspen valley comes into view. It's not overblown like Little Cottonwood Canyon, crowded like Squaw, competitive like Jackson, or freezing-ass-cold like Big Sky. In fact, the ride is rather calming, quiet, and stress free. The only noise comes from the clatter of the lift rolling over the occasional terminal, and the little bluetooth stereo Sewell keeps in his pants pocket.
Beck's "Debra" comes over the playlist, and he sings along, high-pitched voice and all…"I wanna get with you…and your sistah…I think her name is Debra!" He laughs at the lyrics as he skis off the ramp and points his Blizzard Gunsmokes down the fast, wide groomer of Ruthie's to the bumps of Roch Run before coming to a stop above the Cone Dumps. With no other skiers in the vicinity, and six inches of cold powder covering the hill, Sewell is happy with his first-run choice, and he pauses to take it in: the sunlight filtering through the aspens, silvery snow crystals suspended in the air like pixie dust, the joy and gratitude of skiing on a Tuesday when the rest of the world is spinning out of control.
A hip-hop tune plays through the speaker, and he slips over the cat track into the forest. The aspens whoosh past his head as he reaches forward with his right arm, like half of an airplane, holding the left slightly back and near his waist as his knees pivot and bend with the beat to keep his upper body in complete, controlled balance. At the end of the glade, he takes flight onto the groomer at full speed and his smile explodes into the laughter of someone who is truly free.
“The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it.”
FOR THE WORKING CLASS, finding a place to live in any ski town is often the most disheartening part of the skiing experience. In Aspen, one of the most expensive zip codes in the U.S., it's especially tough. This spring, the average selling price for a single-family home in Aspen was $5.9 million. Ski bums live in bunk beds, cram multitudes of roommates into tiny spaces, subsist on quesadillas and PB&Js, and spend most of their income on rent while holding down multiple jobs. In most cases, it only takes a few years before the town chews them up and spits them out.
But this is not a recent phenomenon. Between 1960 and 1970, Aspen's population increased from 1,000 to more than 2,000 (current population is 6,680). Driven by what one-time sheriff candidate Hunter S. Thompson called "Freak Power," Aspen's counterculture scene flourished as young Americans grew tired of the Vietnam War and embraced free love, drugs, and living on the fringe. Aspen, which had valued art, music, and open thought since Walter Paepcke initiated the "Aspen Idea" in 1950, became ground zero for the confluence of skiing and partying. "I came to Aspen in the fall of 1970," says 65-year-old Ruth Harris, who now resides just outside of town. "Housing was nonexistent." She finally wrangled a spot in a trailer park 22 miles out of town. It was worth it, she says, to get a foothold in Aspen.
Tim Anderson, who'd previously lived in upstate New York, Florida, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, moved to Aspen in 1979. He found housing through his job at the lumberyard, where he made $4 an hour and was allowed to take at least one unpaid day off every week in the winter—just to ski. He says getting to Aspen, despite the lack of housing and low wages, was like being set free. "I'd been wandering the country being harassed my whole life, and when I moved here I decided I'm not moving away because it was still a free country in Aspen," he says.
Anderson, 59, describes an Aspen where store clerks took you out back for a bump of cocaine or hit of weed—a place where the common bond was Aspen itself, not external things like money or status. "One of the first things people said to me was don't ask for anyone's last name or what they did for a living," says Anderson. "That was the vibe around here. There was no class structure. People's identities were not connected to who they were or what they did for money. They were connected to living in Aspen and what they did for fun. So you didn't know if the guy next to you was living in a million-dollar house or under a bridge. Thirty-five years later, I still know no one's last name."
Identities were also developed based on where skiers lived and recreated. Traditional gathering spots like the Hotel Jerome, which housed employees in the basement, the Glory Hole Lodge (now the swanky Sky Hotel), and the Independence Lodge inspired "ski gangs," which, in turn, influenced their style on the mountain. The ACME All-Stars got their name by watching Wiley Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons at a bar called The Slope. Anderson's first gang was called the Nachos, a derivative of Not Macho, which came from hanging out at the huge bar on the deck of Little Nell. After the gondola went up in 1986, he became one of the Dogs of Bell, a gang led by Dan Harris (Ruth's husband) who took to barking at tourists so they'd get out of the way.
As Aspen grew as a haven for the rich and famous, real estate values skyrocketed and pushed the working class into tighter quarters or "down valley," a reference to the more affordable communities of the Roaring Fork Valley. At times, swaths of housing for 50 workers were torn down and replaced by mansions that sat dark and empty for most of the year. Recognizing that their town was becoming a shell of its former self, the local government set up a housing authority to build an inventory of deed-restricted, tax-subsidized homes. Today, the agency has nearly 3,000 units (a mix of ownership and rental), which are reserved for people who live and work full-time in Aspen or Pitkin County. The inventory includes one-bedroom condos for $50,000 and three-bedroom homes for $1.5 million. (Yes, in Aspen, $1.5 million qualifies as "affordable housing.") Aspen Skiing Company, the largest employer in town, also contributes 600 beds to the effort. Despite those commendable successes, affordable housing continues to be the number one issue facing Aspen's working class: the everyday skiers.
J.F. Bruegger, a 32-year-old Aspen native, has grown up in the shadow of atmospheric real estate values, where the pressure to leave town is omnipresent. As a young man, he bounced around from one rental to another, nothing too exciting. But in 2007, he got word that the ultimate skier pad was opening up—the historic Skier's Chalet.
Without an immediate plan for the chalet's future, the owners offered to sublet the rooms to coaches with the Aspen Valley Ski Club, where Bruegger works with kids on the big mountain team. The first to move in was a coach named John Nicoletta, a skier from Massachusetts who stormed onto the Aspen ski scene in 2004. He built on the tribe by recruiting Bruegger, then Sewell, then others. With that, a part of Aspen's ski culture that had largely gone extinct rose from the ashes.
"Would you like an adventure now, or would you like to have your tea first?"
THE DECISION TO SKI IN JEANS happens sometime between the moment Sewell, Tatsuno, and Vandenbroek start mixing whiskey with tequila at Little Annie's Eating House, and when they wake up the next morning at the chalet, hungover and slightly confused. The Annie's bartender refused to serve them Twhiskey's, like they asked, only individual shots of tequila and whiskey. So they did the mixing themselves right at the table, using those translucent plastic red cups like you get at Pizza Hut. It tasted like a mixture between whiskey and tequila, which is to say paint thinner. So they ordered another round. Then another, and another…
In the morning, they emerge from their respective rooms at the chalet. (Tatsuno, who lives down valley in Carbondale, slept on the couch in the lounge.) They are dressed in denim pants, denim vests, and denim jackets. After some strong coffee and high fives, they walk the 133 steps to Lift 1A, offer a cheerful and genuine hello to the lifties, and make their way up the mountain over to the gondola.
Servicing 3,267 vertical feet, the Silver Queen Gondola fundamentally changed the way people skied Aspen Mountain. Until its installation in 1986, lift lines at Aspen were frustratingly long and skiers had to connect various lifts to get to the 11,212-foot summit.
Not only has the gondola eliminated lift lines, it means skiers can link up in big ski posses. They can do laps together all day long, and the 14-minute ride is the perfect allotment for swilling a can of beer.
It's also perfect for dropping toy paratroopers out the window onto the NASTAR race course halfway up the mountain. If a paratrooper makes a direct hit—it's all about wind and timing—the bucket will erupt with cheers and, with Sewell's micro-speaker supplying the tunes, maybe a dance party.
When they exit the gondola, the posse swells. Jenny Ryden Harris is there, wearing vintage stretch pants and her mom's old ski sweater. Other girls wear fur boas and beads. Tourists pause to observe the spectacle, and it's easy to share in their envy at the collective display of youth and carefree energy. The gang fans out and tackles each other, performing ballet moves and skiing between one another's legs. As the hill steepens, they pick up speed and spread out like fighter jets in formation, leaning with their faces forward and arms pulled behind their backs, swaying back and forth with the contour of the mountain. Much faster now, they hop off high-speed rollers and spray giant contrails into a wall of evergreens. Suddenly, the entire group darts into the trees, eyeing a favorite stash called Walsh's, a steep bowl filled with powdery bumps. Sewell finds the fresh line on the far left and the group bombs the 600 vertical feet to the cat track below. Everyone is panting and tired but exhilarated from the quality of the snow. Which means it's time for another lap, but not before stopping for a sip of champagne.
Occasionally during the winter, Sentient Jet, Aspen/Snowmass's official private jet partner, sets up a tasting tent right next to the base of the gondola. Inside the tent are soft chairs, mellow house music, and a nice man wearing a black polo shirt who pours complementary bubbly while explaining how to reserve your own jet starting at just $124,000. He maintains an air of pleasantries as he doles out the sparkling elixir, even to dirt bags in denim who pay $300 a month in rent and will never set foot in a private jet. Because this is Aspen, free champagne comes with the territory. So with a happy little buzz, everyone climbs back aboard the Silver Queen, Sewell hits play on his speaker and someone fishes another paratrooper out of their pocket.
"Never say goodbye, because saying goodbye means going away, and
going away means nothing."
AFTER LAST GONDOLA AT 4 P.M., the crew heads skier's left along a procession of blue squares. The snow reflects the pinks and purples of the darkening sky and ski patrol diligently works to put the mountain to bed. Unhurried, Sewell, Tatsuno, Vandenbroek, and a few others take the long way home by milking the day's final few turns, with a specific direction in mind: the John Nicoletta Shrine. Nicoletta only lived at the chalet a few months before he died in 2008 while competing in the U.S. Freeskiing World Championships in Alaska. The death rocked the community, and left a void at the chalet.
There are more than 50 shrines at the four ski areas around Aspen. There's one for Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia, Hunter S. Thompson, John Denver, Marilyn Monroe, and nearly all of the former ski gangs. The Nicoletta Shrine is among the newer ones, established by a current generation of skiers who have put their own unique stamp on the mountain.
Getting to the shrine requires ducking a rope and skiing the top of a mellow powder field that rolls into an enormous drainage. Just as it steepens, the friends cut sharply into a small grove hidden in the trees. The shrine is decorated with some press clippings about their late friend, a few pairs of his old skis, and a wooden bench suspended by ropes between two old trees. Illuminated in the distance is a perfect view of Highland Bowl, a steep pyramid that pitches forward like an ocean wave frozen in time. With such a dramatic scene, it's the kind of place that touches a person's soul. There's no disturbance, no stress, just friends who share the bond of living in a crazy town, losing loved ones to both the mountains and the machine, and doing whatever it takes to keep skiing. But above all else, the shrine is a place where you don't think too hard about tomorrow. It's about today and appreciating what you have and whom you're with at that very moment.
Nobody at the Skier's Chalet knows what he will do when the building is finally torn down. In March 2017, Aspen will host the World Cup Finals. The finish line will be at the bottom of Lift 1A, right there next to the chalet. Most people expect the old girl to be gone by then, replaced by shiny buildings that present a pretty picture for everyone watching the event on TV.
After taking in the view one more time, the posse leaves one by one. A wind chime made of ski poles hangs off a tree on the trail, and each gives it a gentle jingle as they ski by, just to let Nicoletta know they're still thinking about him.
Exiting onto the wide groomer of Ruthie's, they step on the throttle and end the day by pounding the bumps of Norway, a run that presides directly above the chalet. Sewell does a spread eagle off a kicker, Vandenbroek bushwhacks through the willows on his snowboard, and Tatsuno throws a shifty. They ski right onto the back porch, kick off their boards, and start making plans for the night. Someone needs to dig Petey out of the snowbank and go pick up a keg. People will be arriving soon, and it's gonna be a rager.